Graduates celebrate the road less traveled

More than 100 students earn high school diplomas this year through alternative programs at HCC

November 08, 2006|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,special to the sun

Not so long ago, Nicole Casteel was adrift. She had dropped out of Franklin High School in Baltimore County in 10th grade and was homeless, moving from one friend's house to another.

But now, Casteel, 20, has a GED diploma from Howard Community College and is working toward becoming a nurse. She is completed a phlebotomy course at the college and plans to continue taking classes, she said.

On Sunday, Casteel was one of 25 grads to walk across the stage in cap and gown at HCC's Smith Theatre and accept a high school diploma after completing the GED or the External Diploma Program at the community college. More than 100 students - from teenagers to grandparents - have completed one of the two programs this year.

At the ceremony, held annually since 1984, speakers noted that graduation is just the beginning.

"Our doors and our arms are always open whenever you're ready to take the next step of your journey," said Ron Roberson, the college's vice president for academic affairs.

Speakers included County Executive James N. Robey, who said he attended Catonsville Community College before HCC existed and continued his education from there. "I hope you'll come back here," he told the grads.

Keynote speaker Betty Noble, who heads the college's Center for Entrepreneurial and Business Excellence, also urged the graduates to keep the momentum going. "If you feel a dream simmering inside you, don't ignore it," she said.

But she also advised them to savor the moment. "You've reached a very significant milestone," she said. "Take a moment to reflect, to appreciate and to celebrate."

She added: "Although I don't know any of you, I would bet you all overcame a lot of challenges and adversities to get where you are today."

In Casteel's case, her aunt, Sue Savage, who lives in Woodbine, was the one to stress the importance of earning a GED, which stands for General Educational Development and is a national high school equivalency exam.

Savage took in Nicole and her sister, Katrina, now 18, and helped them get driver's licenses and new clothes. Under her guidance, Nicole enrolled in the GED program, which calls for 12 weeks of classes geared specifically toward passing the test.

Like many of the grads Sunday, Casteel said she much preferred the HCC program to regular high school because it focused on learning and left the extras behind, including the often prickly social aspects of high school.

"They get so much support here," said Savage. "A lot of these students are afraid or they've seen failure before or they have family problems."

Katrina, who dropped out of Franklin in ninth grade and works at a Sam's Club, says she hopes to enroll soon and study computers.

Lawrence Snyder III, known as L.B. for Little Buddy, dropped out of Long Reach High School just a few months into his freshman year, he said. After he dropped out, his mother home-schooled him for a while, but then stopped. Mostly, he did drugs, he said.

After a rift with his mother, he moved to Glen Burnie to live with his father, and was arrested twice on drug-possession charges, he said. At that point, his father told him, in no uncertain terms, that it was time for him to get a degree and a job.

Snyder, 16, began working at Cold Stone Creamery in Glen Burnie Mall and enrolled in the GED program at HCC. He graduated Sunday, and plans to get a business degree so he can start a fence-building company.

Snyder said the teachers in the program were "fantastic" and the "learning atmosphere was great."

Even now that's he is older and drug-free, he would not do well in traditional high school, he said. "High school wasn't my thing because I like to do things my way," he said.

"The program actually helped me a whole lot," said Snyder. "I'm a high school dropout that not many people would have had faith in, but I actually made it."

Not all graduates had harrowing tales to tell. Channing Kittrell, 17, of Elkridge figured out that he could get his GED and graduate a year ahead of his peers at Long Reach. He is taking international business classes at HCC and hopes to transfer to the University of Maryland, College Park in a few years.

Hilary DiLaurenzio, 19, had graduated from a Christian high school in Florida but said her diploma qualified her to attend only Christian colleges. She wanted a more general diploma so that she could apply to other colleges and perhaps become a guidance counselor, she said. A GED deiploma in hand, she plans to apply soon. Meanwhile, she is getting computer training at the Woodstock Job Corps.

Carol Gederon, who graduated from the External Diploma Program, is from Guyana and said attending school there was difficult. After 10 months of twice-a-week classes, she received her high school diploma and is taking nursing classes at HCC, she said.

Marie Osbourne, a mother of two, stepmother of two and grandmother of four, left high school at age 16 to have a baby and finally went back to school in HCC's External Diploma Program. She kept her education a secret from her family until she had finished.

Osbourne, one of four students who gave speeches during the ceremony, urged her fellow graduates to "never give up."

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